EDINBURGH have hardly set the heather alight during their warm-up matches leading into tonight’s 2016-17 Guinness Pro 12 curtain raiser away to Cardiff Blues. They lost by five points at Sale Sharks a fortnight ago [33-28] and by the same margin at home to Newcastle Falcons last Friday night [21-26]. Given their dismal ending to last season, you can’t help feeling sorry for their long-suffering supporters, who have continually been promised progress but seen nothing of the sort in the seven years since Andy Robinson departed as head coach to take up the reins with Scotland.
There was some respite from the turgid misery of constant under-achievement when the team marched to the Heineken Cup semi-finals in 2012, but that was an aberration (achieved in stark contrast to an abject Pro 12 campaign that year) which briefly masked the deep-rooted malaise which has enveloped the club for the best part of decade.
Alan Solomons is the latest head coach tasked with shaking the capital side free of the shackles of chronic mediocrity, and he has found it just as tough as his predecessors. Having finished eighth, eighth and then ninth in the Pro 12 during the last three seasons under his watch, the feeling is that the South African will do well to see out the remainder of his contract, which runs out next summer.
Solomons has perhaps brought some structure and discipline after the chaos of the Michael Bradley era, but there has been very little in the way of gold-dust scattered around during a period when a succession of fan’s favourites – including Greig Laidlaw, Tim Visser and Nick De Luca – have been allowed to walk away from the club without like-for-like replacements being identified and brought in.
The feeling is that if Edinburgh are ever going to be anything more than a peripheral presence in European top flight club rugby then they are going to have to offer something more than just a formidable set-piece.
In his defence, Solomons has been consistent in his assertion that he wants to build a team based around Scottish talent, who are able to execute a well-balanced game-plan. He has always insisted that he is looking for evolution not revolution, with solid southern hemisphere journeymen such as Mike Coman and Andries Strauss brought in to provide a steady shoulder for the likes of Blair Kinghorn, Damian Hoyland, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Jamie Ritchie to lean on while they find their feet in the professional game.
But sport is an impatient business, and it has reached the stage now where the promise of jam tomorrow (and the constant reference to injuries today) will no longer suffice. It is time for Solomons’ team to deliver, or that shoogly peg upon which his coat is hung will surely come completely unstuck.
There was one source of encouragement during that generally dismal outing versus the Falcons last weekend, and that was the arrival off the bench at half-time of Solomoni ‘Junior’ Rasolea – a summer signing from Western Force – to provide Edinburgh’s attacking game with a much needed focal point. He scored one try and created another with an exciting blend of pace, power and unpredictability.
The Brisbane-born 25-year-old played Sevens for his birth country, but is intensely proud of his Fijian roots. His father played five times for the islanders in the mid-1980s and he represented the country at under-20s level.
“Because of my Fijian background I like to get my hands on the ball and have a bit of a play around. Some offloads here and there – some that went to the guys and some that didn’t – but I like to showboat around the field,” he said after that game, which is almost shocking to hear from an Edinburgh player.
Rasolea is one of a raft of players with strong Pacific Island connections now on the books at Edinburgh.
Sasa Tofilau, who was born in the village of Leulumoega in Samoa before immigrating to New Zealand with his family in 1999, also joined the club after impressing whilst taking a year out to play for Kirkcaldy in National Division Two last season. He will line up alongside Rasolea in Edinburgh’s midfield this evening.
Back-rower Viliami Fihaki, who has played eight times for Tonga, was another summer signing – although he is not yet fully up to speed so has been released to play for Watsonians against Hawick in the BT Premiership this afternoon.
Number eight Nasi Manu, who joined the club last summer but had severely limited game time due to injury, was born and raised in New Zealand and has so far chosen not to cash in on his eligibility to play for Tonga; while Will Helu, another New Zealand-born player in his second year at the club, has taken that option and been capped 22 times as a result.
Viliame Mata, a gold medal winner for Fiji at this year’s Olympics, is due to be unveiled as Edinburgh’s latest signing very soon.
“I think there will be an announcement in due course. But be positive – very positive,” confirmed Solomons yesterday.
So, was this creation of a Pacific Islands enclave in west Edinburgh part of a pre-planned strategy to stimulate the attacking vitality of the team, or was it a more accidental process?
Solomons was never going to give a straight answer to that question, but he did agree it is an exciting situation for Edinburgh to be in.
“Players from the Pacific Islands, or have that heritage, have exceptional genetics for the game. That’s a fact. These are good rugby players and there are players from there playing all around the world. Look at Super Rugby in Australia and New Zealand – there is an incredible amount [of players with strong Pacific Island connections]. They are genetically gifted and rugby suits their temperament, too,” he said.
Rosalea hinted last week at what Edinburgh might be capable of as an attacking force if he is given his head. His centre partner, Tofilau, made a similar impact when guesting for the pro team at last season’s Melrose Sevens. Solomons and Edinburgh fans are both hoping that their influence could be a catalyst for an upturn in fortunes for the capital club.
“I think they’re going to be very important. They’re up against a good [Cardiff] partnership. I thought Junior was very impressive against Newcastle last week, and Sasa is growing game by game. You must remember, this is his third professional game – but he certainly has ability on attack,” said Solomons.
“Both of them, attacking-wise, can present challenges for the opposition. The big thing for me is that they defend well. I’m very positive about their attacking ability, that’s for sure.”
THE LOWDOWN –
CARDIFF BLUES v EDINBURGH RUGBY
VENUE: Cardiff Arms Park @ 7.35pm
Blues: D Fish; B Scully, C Allen, R Lee-Lo, T James; S Shingler, T Williams; R Gill, K Myhill, T Filise, G Earle, M Cook, J Navidi, E Jenkins©, N Milliams. Subs: K Dacey, G Jenkins, S Andrews, J Down, C Dolan, L Jones, G Anscombe, M Morgan.
Edinburgh: G Bryce; R Scholes, S Tofilau, S Rosalea, T Brown; D Weir, N Fowles; R Sutherland, R Ford, W Nel, F McKenzie, G Gilchrist, J Ritchie, H Watson, N Manu. Subs: S McInally, J Cosgrove, S Berghan, B Toolis, M Bradbury, S Hidalgo-Clyne, B Kinghorn, C Dean.
TEAM NEWS –
Blues: Club captain Gethin Jenkins starts his 17th season of professional rugby on the bench. The 35-year-old hopes to add to his 131 Wales caps this Autumn so will be looking to make a big impact when he gets on. Wales captain Sam Warbuton is not in the squad but is expected back for next week’s clash with Munster.
Edinburgh: Winger Tom Brown and scrum-half Nathan Fowles are the only survivors from last season in the visitors’ backline. There are no new signings in the pack but Fraser McKenzie, Grant Gilchrist and Nasi Manu played so little rugby last year due to injury that they will almost feel like fresh recruits. John Hardie is rested but Solomons played down rumours linking him with a move to Wasps.
KEY BATTLE: Rey Lee-Lo versus Solomoni Rasolea
WHAT THE COACHES SAY –
“It’s a home game and we won 80 per cent of our home games last year. We will be looking to start this season with a good performance which will also hopefully lead to a win. But Edinburgh have recruited well, they have a very big pack of forwards and are one of the sides in this league that play a set-piece dominant style of rugby…” – Danny Wilson (Blues)
“Cardiff are a good team. If you look at the bench they have – Gareth Anscombe is an established player, Matthew Morgan is an exciting young talent and obviously Gethin Jenkins is coming back as well. Everybody wants a play-off spot. We don’t want to end up landing extra pressure on ourselves. We’ll take it game by game and what’s very important for us is that if we are in a position to win a game, we close it out…” – Alan Solomons (Edinburgh)
Verdict: Starting the season well has not been an issue for Edinburgh in recent years, but can they sustain it?
Image courtesy of Scottish Rugby/SNS Group